- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - The sun was shining brightly on Claire Vlases, an eighth-grade girl who led a student campaign to raise $118,000 so that solar panels can be installed at Sacajawea Middle School in Bozeman.

Claire, 14, started a year ago by asking the Bozeman School Board to put up solar panels as part of the school’s $16 million expansion. She argued it “makes sense,” environmentally and financially.

Trustees and architects commended her, but the district’s building chief said solar didn’t yet work economically.

Someday, he said.

Undeterred, Claire set about raising money and organizing help from students and adults. It was her project for independent studies class, intended to let kids work on something they’re passionate about. Some kids build cars.

“My idea was to get solar panels,” Claire said, “to connect the nature around us with the school.”

Bozeman school administrators pledged $25,000 in school district funds.

Principal Gordon Grissom and Facilities Director Todd Swinehart said Claire had raised the issue early enough that Sacajawea’s new electives wing could be designed to be structurally strong enough to support solar panels in the future and to have the right electrical setup to connect to the power grid.

Sacajawea students held a “Pennies for Power” fundraiser, with classes competing to collect the most pennies and win a pizza party.

“I thought we were only going to raise $500,” Claire said, “but we blew it out of the water.”

Between the pennies campaign and the student talent show, which donated its earnings to the solar project, Sacajawea kids and teachers raised $8,500.

For Halloween, Claire made a black solar panel costume that said Solar Makes Sense and went door-to-door asking for donations.

Her younger sister Ursula, a sixth-grader, wrote a grant to the Bozeman Area Community Foundation, which gave $3,000.

Kids formed a Solar Makes Sense group and collected donations at every school fundraiser, from the Adult Spelling Bee to the Santa Run. They set up a web page and sought donations through the Bozeman Schools Foundation.

Meanwhile, Grissom said, the estimated cost of solar panels came down, from $130,000 to $115,000.

Last week, while Claire was competing at a track meet in Belgrade, her parents got a message from the Bozeman Schools Foundation that the Kendeda Fund had agreed to donate $80,000. That put the project over the top.

“I was so happy,” Claire said. “I started crying.”

Her dad, Dr. Michael Vlases, said her mom, Katy, had to tell Claire through the chain-link fence separating athletes and parents, “so they couldn’t hug each other.”

That donation marked “an amazing milestone,” Principal Grissom said.

Claire and the principal had met last fall with Diana Blank, first wife of Home Depot’s founder and the philanthropist who started the Kendeda Fund, named for her children. The fund, created to support efforts to create a just world and use resources wisely, reports donating $500 million since its start in 1993.

Claire said after learning about the Kendeda Fund from School Board Trustee Douglas Fischer, she had set up the meeting.

The fund managers wanted to see more details, like a budget, a fundraising plan and school-wide support, Grissom said.

By the second meeting with fund officials this spring, Claire had done everything asked of her, and brought the sixth-grade Solar Makes Sense committee, Fischer and other supporters.

Superintendent Rob Watson recognized Claire and the Sacajawea students’ achievement at a recent School Board meeting.

Once the Kendeda Fund check arrives, Swinehart said, school officials plan to seek bids from contractors. In the best-case scenario, Grissom said, they’d be able to install the panels this summer.

Claire won a community champion award from the U.S. Green Building Council of Montana in February and was recently invited to the governor’s SMART School Symposium.

“I feel really humble that I could be part of it,” Claire said. “I’m really proud of the success we’ve had.”

She admitted feeling nervous the night she spoke in front of the School Board. Now, she said, she’s better at public speaking.

Grissom praised her “quiet leadership.” He also said they hope Sacajawea’s experience inspires other schools.

Solar is under consideration in the planning that’s just starting for Bozeman’s second high school, Swinehart said. The cost savings will have to be weighed against the extra cost, he said. “Nothing is off the table.”

“We want this to be a launching pad for other green energy for schools,” Claire said, “and for students to follow their own passions.”

___

Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com


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